With this coming Sunday (8pm) seeing the last debate-type event I plan to host for a while -- in this case, my onstage interview of Michael Malice, who has written a book about Kim Jong Il, at Muchmore’s in Williamsburg -- it’s the perfect time for a climactic blog entry about socialism. Then I really must turn to other projects (including writing real articles).
Most of the angst over socialism these days is about our response to it rather than about the deadly flaws of the system itself: Should former college communist Obama have shaken Raul Castro’s hand? Should Mandela be faulted for endorsing violence and communism in his struggle against Apartheid? And should I honor one of his allies by singing Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” in karaoke sometime? Probably, on that last one.
(Of course, Obama shaking Castro’s hand during Mandela’s funeral is less embarrassing than Obama taking a happy selfie during the event, his unhappy-looking wife planting herself between the President and the cute Danish prime minister, or the whole event being infiltrated by a mentally ill sign-language interpreter who was making things up -- though if Obama unexpectedly said after the affair, “Hey, I was having fun the whole time -- a communist had died!” some conservatives might well be pleased.)
With luck, communism will never again murder 100 million people as it did in the twentieth century (something like 300 million, about a tenth of the human race at the time, died thanks to actions by big-government-in-general last century, depending on how you do the math). Yet with countless intellectuals and young activists enamored of various watered-down forms of socialism today, it can still do serious damage to the economy even without openly murdering as many people.
Unfortunately, socialism (in varying forms and to varying degrees) is or has been pretty much everywhere (thus the list of locales below), even if outright communism is now rare. Marx wrote of socialism “haunting” Europe, but it might be more apt to think of it “stomping all over and destroying” places (a bit like Godzilla in the new trailer for the remake coming out next year):
1. Though libertarians should love Orwell, he was certainly criticizing socialism from within -- or at least criticizing it as a left-anarchist in the final days when intelligent people could plausibly still believe that and Communism amounted to roughly the same thing.
That’s what he believed when he went to SPAIN to fight in its 1936-1939 civil war, in any case, as his mid-war account Homage to Catalonia makes clear. But his every sentence reflects his realism, skepticism, frankness, and lack of illusions (which is why he was an inspiration to Christopher Hitchens, among others, and why I defended him against a class filled with leftists back in college, when Orwell’s insistence on apolitical, jargon-free language was seen as un-p.c. -- that’s how radical Brown University was two decades ago, and I will not assume it has improved all that much).
Lionel Trilling wrote of Orwell in his introduction to the book, “he does not dream of a new kind of man, he is content with the old kind, and what moves him is the desire that this old kind of man should have freedom, bacon, and proper work.” Not a bad platform.
What Orwell found instead in Spain was protracted, largely futile trench warfare between fascist rebels with bad aim and an internally-feuding mix of socialist and anarchist factions with even worse aim who hoped either to rescue the liberal/democratic government of Spain from the fascists, turn it into a bourgeois-yet-Communist vassal of Russia, or replace it with perpetual left-anarchist revolution, depending on which faction you were talking to at which point in a very confusing war.
Orwell devotes one large chapter in mid-book to trying to identify the various factions and their various tensions, but you sense that on some level he knows that keeping track of it all is beside the point and that there is a decent chance history will conclude it’s just as well the fascists won in the end. The empirical details are what make an impression, such as Orwell’s faction using a megaphone to spout dispiriting propaganda at the fascist lines -- lying and telling them that the leftists had lots of yummy buttered toast in their trench, for instance.
As the government crumbles before the fascist onslaught, in Orwell’s account, it turns increasingly Soviet-backed Communist and therefore devotes a great deal of energy not to beating the fascists but to crushing its left-anarchist rivals. And, yes, this includes confiscating the guns of anarchists, including the P.O.U.M. faction of which Orwell was a part (but then, even some conservatives such as Heather Mac Donald think the Second Amendment is overrated, I’ve found, so how can one expect better from Communists?).
The factionalism on display in the Spanish Civil War is almost as bad as that among libertarians.
Gallingly, the Communists of the 1930s were never content merely to criticize their rivals but had to smear them as covert fascists (or as Trotskyites, which amounted to the same thing, since they’d begun claiming that Trotsky was himself a covert fascist ally -- ironic considering Stalin’s own pact with Hitler). In truth, Orwell and others found in the camaraderie of the front -- and the short-lived takeover of businesses and buildings in cities such as Barcelona -- an intoxicating microcosm of the imagined egalitarianism of full-fledged anarchist-socialist society. He was as giddy as an Occupy participant when he wasn’t getting shot at.
Within months, though, the bourgeois modes of dress and speech began creeping back into the way of life in towns, even as people continued dying on the front and shortages made the pretense of normality in town difficult. Interestingly, Orwell saw the Communist/Russian influence -- from his perspective as a true radical -- as one more form of “bourgeois” influence, and because of it he predicted early on that the Communists and liberals would end up reaching some sort of accommodation with the fascists to avoid ongoing anarchist disruptions. Orwell was a pragmatist and realist but by no means a moderate.
One important lesson he learned from it all, applicable to countless political persuasions, is that first-hand experience always teaches you how inaccurate press accounts are, especially when they’re influenced by political agents: “Throughout the fighting I never made the correct ‘analysis’ of the situation that was so glibly made by journalists hundreds of miles away. What I was chiefly thinking about was not the rights and wrongs of this miserable internecine scrap, but simply the discomfort and boredom.”
By the time it was over, he’d see friends of his who’d died fighting for socialism pilloried in the communist-influenced press as covert fascists, see his wife (who lived not far from the front all the while he was fighting) confronted by inquisitive Spanish government cops over her possession of writings from multiple factions including the Nazis, hear the, uh, Orwellian coinage “Trotsky-Fascist” for those disfavored by Moscow popularized, and see one of his P.O.U.M. pals disappear as a political prisoner into an ostensibly leftist prison system (likely to be executed later in the war).
He writes that many people in Barcelona at that time summed things up in almost the same words: “The atmosphere of this place -- it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum.”
And you know, the dumbass -- lucky enough to survive getting shot in the neck at one point -- still wanted to go back and fight after he and his wife sneaked out via France (now hoping to appear as bourgeois as possible to avoid attracting attention as proletarian radicals but occasionally pausing to scrawl leftist graffiti on fancy restaurant walls) and went back home to England. But then, he rightly suspected similar fighting would soon engulf all of Europe anyway, and concludes admiring England but seeing his countrymen as “all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”
Nerd sidenote: The immediate fascist aftermath of the Spanish Civil War also inspired Guillermo del Toro’s films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, which depict fascists during WWII juxtaposed with menacing supernatural elements. I only recently learned that both were in turn influenced by the acclaimed Spanish film Spirit of the Beehive (which helps explain del Toro’s otherwise creepy habit of showing kids in jeopardy -- and perhaps explains the band name Voice of the Beehive to boot).
2. NORTH KOREA is reportedly rapidly selling off its gold in a bid to delay economic collapse -- and executes viewers of foreign TV.
3. Sunday’s speaker, Michael Malice, was born in UKRAINE, itself now wracked by government crackdowns on pro-EU protestors. The modern press’s approach is not merely to misrepresent political factions as in Orwell’s day (though there was a little of that in this case, as the Ukrainian government attempted to blame the protestors for some of the violence) but to sound so haughtily above the fray that it needn’t even bother about details like whoexactly is fighting whom, as long as it captures the superficial atmosphere of the situation and paints a few colorful portraits.
4. VENEZUELA has an explanation for its recent blackouts (h/t Walter Olson): “Be strong against this electrical war that yesterday’s fascists have declared against our people,” Maduro said.
5. Amidst talk of delaying the auctioning off of more of THE ELECTROMAGNETIC SPECTRUM, take a moment to appreciate the non-communal approach to creativity of king of the airwaves Howard Stern, explained in this brief, amusing exchange (h/t Jack Hunter...or Beth Hunker...or someone I tried dutifully to note for later).
6. Even moments in history most prone to make you sympathize with communists may warrant a second look -- as with that infamous on-the-spot execution photo from the VIETNAM War that while brutal may not have been so hasty (h/t Francois Rideau).
7. Even in nominally capitalist societies like THE U.S., keep in mind the government is still government, not some product of market efficiency. Police repeatedly raiding a store to arrest its employees is plainly not good for business, not to mention race relations (h/t Derek Rose). Government here even helps set the tone in authoritarian-leaning private institutions such as universities (at least that benighted campus hosts one pro-freedom institution: the Ludwig von Mises Institute).
8. Here’s how THE UK, which seems just slightly more comfortable following absurd edicts to the letter than the U.S. is, is starting to live: ninety-two year-olds being prevented from buying booze without proof of age (h/t John Rowe).
9. GERMANY’s Nazis and Greens often get along just fine and long have, really.
10. August will bring Ethan Gutmann’s book on contemporary mass-slaughter in CHINA.
11. For a long time to come, THE FUTURE here will probably bring mild versions of socialism like snooty-populist Elizabeth Warren using her regulatory authority to bully banks into disclosing whether they have funded criticism of her. As Tim Carney notes, this kind of abuse of power is exactly why funding anonymous political speech must be protected under the First Amendment -- despite what you hear from Progressive “reformers” and anti-Citizens United activists, the short-sighted fools.
12. My fellow anarcho-capitalists (libertarians who want no government at all) sometimes joke of a future, ideal ANCAPISTAN in which our philosophy has become the norm, but that goal seems far off indeed when even our fellow libertarians, or at least so-called “liberal-tarians,” encourage statist ideas such as government guarantees of a minimum income. There are better and worse statist regimes, I fully agree, but if perchance liberal-tarians agree that eroding property rights is usually a bad thing, perhaps they should stop doing it.
They get all their intellectual mileage from correctly noting that it would be wrong to shallowly and glibly defend the so-called Non-Aggression Principle (the refusal ever to use another’s body or property without permission) -- and then they pretend that they’ve thereby proven there is no other way to defend the NAP. Then, inevitably, they proceed whimsically to imagine their own favored violations of it, with no evidence they’re actually helping the world by doing so.
But no matter how incoherent philosophy gets, as long as things like this massive Slayer-themed Christmas lights display exist, there is hope for the broader, vaguer capitalist culture of America.